03 January 2022

Grep your way to Synecdoche, NY

Grep synecdoche

In writing another blog post about grepping code, I found myself wandering off in a digression that felt like a blog version of the yellow boxes in high school history textbooks (the part everyone skips).

Grep is the command-line search utility. It is so ubiquitous and has been around for so long that “to grep” for something means using any tool for searching through code (or text) on a computer. I was looking for a word to describe this phenomena and was tipped off about metonymy by Claire, and clicking around got me to the more specific word, synecdoche, which is defined as “a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole”. I’d love to hear from an English major if I’m subtly off here, but some examples include Hoover being used to mean vacuum or Band-Aid for adhesive bandage. Even though I might say I’m “grepping” for something—depending on the environment I’m in—I might be using ag in my shell (since it’s faster), the built-in search in an IDE (cmd+shift+f in VSCode), or plain old grep when ssh'ed into a remote machine.

In the aforementioned discussion, I played the pronunciation for synecdoche out loud and remarked how close it sounds to “Schenectady”. This time I was tipped off about a delightfully named Charlie Kaufman movie named Synecdoche, New York. The word itself seems quite pretentious, so it’s funny to see that in the response from critics “some called [the movie] pretentious or self-indulgent, but others declared it a masterpiece”.

Happy new year, thank you for joining me for my first new word of the year. May you have meandering conversations and enjoy obscure wordplay in 2022. Back to regular programming next week.

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Peter Coles

Peter Coles

is a software engineer living in NYC who is building Superset 💪 and also created GoFullPage 📸
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